Despite gambling options, some Marylanders still prefer trips to Atlantic City

Caitlin Johnston, Capital News Service

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Every morning, Donald Alcorn misses Michigan.

He misses his house and the quiet. He misses fishing. He misses the life he had before his daughter asked him to move to Maryland so she could better look after him in his old age.

Most of all, he misses the peace. Life is cluttered here. Fish-filled streams and country are replaced by the noise of bickering family. There are fewer places to hide.

Which is why, one Thursday every month, Alcorn boards a bus with about two-dozen other retirees and rides three hours to Atlantic City.

Once there, he makes his way through the garland-covered walkway into Trump Plaza. He walks past the blinking lights and whirring machines, past the cocktail waitresses with full trays, even though it’s barely noon.

Halfway through the casino floor, he sits down at a “Lucky Lemmings” slot machine, one of his favorites.

As he presses the “spin” button, all those concerns of home and the yearning for Michigan begin to fade away. For the first time that week, his mind starts to clear.

Casino proponents in Maryland rejoiced when November’s referendum passed, saying it would keep gambling money in state. And though bus tours to Atlantic City have seen a decline since Maryland Live! and other casinos opened, some gamblers say it doesn’t matter how many casinos Maryland builds or how many table games it adds.

These trips to Atlantic City are less about the bets and more about the escape.

The bus rides themselves are what you’d imagine – about 20 senior citizens and retirees spaced throughout the plush, blue patterned seats.

Usually there’s a movie playing, but on a recent trip, Ernie Baylor, the bus driver, announced that one of the discs was scratched, so they’d save the remaining film for the ride back.

Without the noise of a movie, it’s a quiet ride. The women sit with their purses on their laps. Some stare out the window. Some doze off. A couple of women chatter about getting their nails done and how much they tip for eyebrow waxing. Sisters Fran Brooks and Johnette Cates don’t like gambling in Maryland.

“They don’t give anything to you for free,” Brooks, 66, said. “Not even the drinks.”

In Atlantic City, the sisters get all sorts of things comped: hotel rooms, buffets, tickets to shows and those delicious pina coladas at Caesar’s.

And there’s more to do besides gamble. Shopping, shows, walking the boardwalk. Casinos in Maryland just can’t compete, Brooks said.

“And the payout in Maryland sucks,” Cates said.

So, instead, they take a bus to Atlantic City every few months and enjoy the perks. This trip, they have a comped night at Ceasars and a free buffet.

They don’t mind the bus ride up, either. It’s a nice ride, especially when the leaves still have a little color left in them. And the ticket, which costs $35, is basically free. Casinos, such as Trump Plaza, give riders $30 in slot money and $5 in food.

But they’ve noticed a change in the bus rides. The sisters, who have taken these trips for several years, said the buses used to be packed. Now, it’s not even half full. And that’s after two companies consolidated.

Instead of helping business, it just added more stops to the trip, which means longer rides to get to the casinos. Still, the sisters have no interest in changing their gambling destination from Atlantic City to Maryland.

“More than anything, it’s nice to get away,” Brooks said. “Maryland, they don’t do anything for you. They don’t make it worth your time. Here, everything’s free. And it’s a break from everything back home.”

It’s several hours later and Donald Alcorn is still gambling with the initial money he started with. Better than that, he’s up $100.

Alcorn allocates $200 to gamble with each trip. Once he blows through that on slots – some days faster than others – he’s done gambling.

Since the bus doesn’t leave to go back to Maryland until 6 p.m., he sometimes has to find other ways to fill the time. His favorite is walking the boardwalk. That’s another reason he doesn’t like going to casinos in Maryland. All there is to do is gamble, which is fine for the addicts, he says, but not for people such as himself who are looking for entertainment.

“People want a dual purpose,” Alcorn said.

At the end of the day, after six hours of gambling, three pina coladas, and a couple full plates of food at the buffet, Alcorn had won more than $110. He stopped by the Starbucks on the way out and used his $5 food voucher on a couple bags of mixed nuts.

“It’s a good trip, as far as I’m concerned. A wonderful trip,” Alcorn said, walking toward the bus to go home. “And I’ll get home in time to watch Jay Leno.”

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(Copyright 2012 by Capital News Service. All Rights Reserved.)

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